Today, as we honour those who toil, we might do well to look over our shoulders to see what has been happening. Only by remembering what was can we truly see what we have become. For example, see if you can find photos of yourself and your loved ones that go back over a generation. If you can, and you put them in date order, you will be swept up by the stop-frame movement through time. It will take your breath away.
I was a young person in the 1960’s. It was a time of intense hope and idealism. We spoke of not joining the man in his quest for money and status. Alas, it was not to be. We grew up and joined the man. It was the beginning of what Cornel West calls the Ice Age.
Another name for the man is the scientific management movement. Following Henry Ford, it broke up manufacturing into small chunks that minimized the need for skill. You could, the thinking went, make high-quality goods without the trades, without apprenticeship, without good work. And if you didn’t need good work, you didn’t have to pay for it. All the skill (and the pay) resided in management.
Barry Schwartz, in Rethinking Work, a well-timed piece in the New York Times of August 28, pointed out that it was Adam Smith himself who provided the seed for the growth of the man. In the foundational document of capitalism, The Wealth of Nations, he opined that people were naturally lazy and would work only for pay. “It is in the interest of every man to live as much at his ease as he can.”
Professor Schwartz (psychology at Swarthmore) also tells us that Adam Smith’s idea that the worker is lazy has become a self-fulfilling prophecy. I would add that if work is cheap, you will get cheap work.
But there are more – and more disturbing – revelations in Rethinking Work. They have to do with a worker’s engagement and enjoyment, which in turn flow from his feeling that his work is meaningful, that it makes a difference. According to Gallup polls, says Schwartz, Nine out of ten workers spend half their waking lives doing things they don’t really want to do in places they don’t particularly want to be.
I know this is harsh and heretical, but here is my thought for the day:
Yes, Adam Smith laid the foundation for capitalism. While not perfect, it has been the best option for centuries. But Adam Smith was and is wrong about the human being. We are not lazy. We can tolerate being dirt poor. What we cannot tolerate is a life without meaning, a life remote from connection with the larger society. So what do the poor, the uneducated, and the unemployed do?
In West Side Story, they joined a gang. In The Wire, they sold drugs on the corner. In 2015, they join ISIS and commit to jihad. Is that so far from what Cornel West calls the fire?
Fire means a certain kind of burning in the soul that one can no longer tolerate when one is pushed against a wall. So, you straighten your back up, you take your stand, you speak your truth, you bear your witness and, most important, you are willing to live and die.
Can a mistake of Adam Smith have borne so much strange fruit? Income inequality, gangs, drugs, jihad. What a terrible waste of our precious and talented youth!